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Ray Hunt

DA’s office ends trace case prosecutions

Good.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has stopped prosecuting thousands of so-called trace drug cases, which typically stem from glass pipes seized from users containing little more than residue of crack cocaine, officials said Thursday.

The recent change means it is not prosecuted at all, unless there are extenuating circumstances said Tom Berg, First Assistant District Attorney. Houston police officials have given the new policy their approval, but with an important caveat.

“We want to go after people who are a real danger to the community, violent against people, violent against property,” Berg said. “It’s a smarter practice that everybody agreed to go forward on without a great deal of controversy.”

Berg said several factors combined to push the policy change, including limited resources, a raft of exonerations in recent years because of erroneous field tests and the rise of lethal drugs. He singled out fentanyl, a chemical which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used to cheaply spike more expensive drugs.

“Fentanyl and carfentanil – horrible substances – potentially fatal substances on contact,” he said. “Inadvertent contact, in the context of trying to scrape up some crud out of carpet in a car, could have catastrophic effects on the officers. They could be inhaling it without knowing it.”

[…]

The change is being eyed with cautious optimism by police representatives who had previously argued against the change.

“We’re not opposed to it as long as the DA is going to hammer hard these (burglary of motor vehicle) suspects who are crackheads anyway,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “These are the ‘trace case’ people, that’s who they are. They’re the people who are breaking into cars to steal change.”

The police union has argued that arresting people for drug possession because of residue on paraphernalia keeps them from burglarizing cars, homes and businesses.

In the past, much less than a gram of the illegal drug – often just scrapings – could be prosecuted as a felony adding 2,000 to 4,000 people a year to Houston’s crowded dockets.

Hunt said the district attorney’s office promised to vigorously prosecute car burglars in exchange for police support of the policy.

“If we start getting cases where we have BMV (burglary of a motor vehicle) suspects and it’s a crackhead with a pipe on them and that person gets one or two days in jail, then it’s a serious problem and they’re not living up to the deal,” Hunt said.

This was indeed a campaign promise of Ogg’s, and it had been the policy under Pat Lykos, before Devon Anderson put a stop to it. Getting buy in from the police union, however tentatively, is a big deal since they were a big part of the reason why it was so contentious under Lykos. Refocusing on property crimes is also a good move, as those offenses are seldom punished now and affect a lot of people in a tangible way. All in all, a big win. Let’s hope the follow-through is as successful. The Press has more.

HPD wants control of crime scene forensics for officer-involved shootings

No.

HoustonSeal

Houston’s acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, with the support of the powerful Houston Police Officers Union, has made a behind-closed-doors bid to take back control over the troubled Crime Scene Unit from the city’s independent forensic science lab.

The Crime Scene Unit is small but critical – its technicians gather and photograph evidence from all homicides, including incidents in which police officers use deadly force against civilians.

Montalvo’s move comes in the wake of a highly critical audit by three outside experts who concluded in July that crime scene investigators need increased independence from the Houston Police Department – not less – to objectively gather evidence in shootings involving HPD officers.

The audit focused on eight recent officer-involved shootings in 2016 and concluded that crime scene analysts had in some cases been influenced in their evidence collection decisions by statements made by other officers at the shooting scene. The audit found that analysts had failed to properly collect evidence, including bullets, photos and samples, and needed more training. The unit is currently made up of a mix of sworn officers, who are members of the police union, and civilian lab employees overseen by a civilian director.

Montalvo proposed taking back control over the unit at a private meeting earlier this summer with Nicole Casarez, a prominent criminal defense attorney who heads the advisory board of the independent crime lab, the Houston Forensic Science Center. Ray Hunt, the police union president, attended the meeting and fully supported the change. It’s on hold while lab operations undergo larger efficiency review ordered by Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to statements city officials have provided to lab board members.

“We have been in ongoing discussions with the Houston Forensic Science Center on HPD possibly taking back the Crime Scene Unit personnel, many of who are HPD officers who collect evidence,” Montalvo said Friday. “We’ve discussed some concerns on our end to help improve time efficiency on some crime scenes. It is important to note we continue to meet regularly, share dialogue on the matter and continue to have a good, positive working relationship among our agencies.”

The unit was split off from HPD two years ago when the department’s crime lab became independent – a change that at the time had the full support of former HPD Chief Charles McClelland as a way to build up public confidence in the quality of that lab, which had been involved in multiple scandals related to huge backlogs, untested rape kits and poor forensics.

McClelland, in an interview, said he did not think returning the unit to HPD was a good idea. “I don’t think it would build confidence in the public’s mind – absolutely not,” he said. “To solve the issue is to have extremely well-trained evidence technicians that are independent of HPD. … It doesn’t take an HPD officer to be an evidence technician – I think we can all agree on that.”

Casarez and other crime lab officials have said in interviews that returning the unit to HPD would likely hamper efforts to win its accreditation – and could undermine public confidence in the independence of the new lab itself, particularly in light of the recent audit.

McClelland and Casarez are correct, Montalvo and Hunt are wrong. Forensic investigations and evidence collections in general should be done by techs who are independent of law enforcement, so that no one has any reason to doubt their objectivity. This is doubly true for cases where police officers are being investigated, for the same reason why body cameras and recorded investigations benefit the police as much as they benefit the public. I hope Mayor Turner stands firm on this. Grits has more.

HPD to get a pay raise

Mayor Parker and the police union agree to a new contract.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The Houston Police Department hopes a new union contract that targets raises primarily to younger officers will ward off recruiting struggles that have forced it to offer bonuses to cadets.

The agreement, which Mayor Annise Parker and Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt announced Monday, is aimed at helping HPD compete with peer agencies.

“The fact that we’ve been having to pay hiring bonuses as the economy picked up means that some folks were making economic decisions,” Parker said. “We need to make sure we’re competitive across all ranks, and we need to focus on those, particularly, entry-level officers, to make sure that we have a continuing influx of new talent into the Houston Police Department.”

The deal would give the department an across-the-board 4 percent raise this year, at a cost to the city of about $13 million. That would be followed by two years of varied raises, intended to bring the various ranks in line with peer agencies, at an average cost of $16 million per year. Most notably, starting this June, probationary officers would get $42,000, up from $35,160 today, a bill of about $849,000 in the next fiscal year.

In 2018, the last year of the contract, all police officers would get a flat 3.5 percent raise, at a cost of $12 million. Union members will vote through Friday, and, if they approve the deal, City Council will consider it Feb. 18.

The Mayor’s press release is here. As noted in the story, this is a separate issue from the call by HPD Chief McClelland to hire hundreds more officers to deal with HPD’s backlogs, about which I remain skeptical. Normally I’d say that I’d expect this deal to be ratified, but after the recent HFD contract rejection I’ll wait and see. Mostly, I’m interested to hear what frequent commenter Steven Houston thinks of this. I’m also looking forward to what Council and the scads of Mayoral candidates will have to say about it.

McClelland wants more money for more cops

And I want some answers before we go along with this request.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland asked city leaders Tuesday for an additional $105 million over five years to hire hundreds of new officers as part of a plan to shore up divisions where thousands of crimes are never investigated and bolster traffic enforcement as automobile collisions citywide are rising.

McClelland’s request comes as Mayor Annise Parker is searching for cuts to address an estimated $120 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins next July 1. Rising pension and debt costs, along with a voter-approved cap on city revenues, are fueling the city’s looming budget problems.

Executive assistant chief Timothy Oettmeier said HPD is proposing hiring 540 additional officers over the next five years, part of a 10-year plan to add 1,200 officers to investigative and patrol divisions. The staff increase would include new officers and hiring civilians to free up officers for field work.

Oettmeier said HPD was “enormously sensitive” to the budget situation and is using the hiring plan as a way to start a discussion. “What we’re simply saying is we need additional personnel, but given the current economic climate, can we sit down and figure out how to proceed at a time that’s appropriate for everybody,” Oettmeier said.

[…]

This summer, two independent police research groups hired to analyze HPD’s staffing noted that the department’s division commanders reported they had more than 20,000 crimes with workable leads that were not investigated due to a lack of manpower. That figure included burglaries and thefts, hit-and-run crashes and assaults.

Crime statistics provided to the committee showed HPD’s clearance rate for theft, burglary and auto theft was 11 percent last year.

[Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union] blamed a 44 percent clearance rate for rapes on low staffing, adding that HPD has seven detectives working adult sex crimes, compared to 15 deployed by the Austin Police Department.

“There’s no question that we’re struggling in some of the investigative divisions,” Oettmeier said, responding to the union.

I’ve expressed my opinion on that no-investigations report before, and the questions I raised then have not been addressed, as far as I know. I am not willing to spend more money on hiring officers until we get some answers to how well HPD uses the budget and resources it has now. We may well need to hire more officers, and to increase the pay we offer to them. I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility, and the possibility that we will need to spend more money on police, but I am not willing to accept anyone’s word for it. Show me how HPD has performed in comparison to its own recent past and to other large city police forces, and then we can talk staffing levels. I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

HPOU wades into the DA race

They’re all in for incumbent Devon Anderson.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

The already intense race for Harris County district attorney became more heated Wednesday with the Houston Police Officer’s Union attacking Democratic candidate Kim Ogg, saying that during her time at Crime Stoppers she violated the privacy of victims she was supposed to help support.

The 5,300-member group is endorsing GOP incumbent Devon Anderson, who declined to comment about the attack, which included a radio ad that was released earlier in the day.

At her news conference later Wednesday, Ogg called the attack a “desperate act,” then accused Anderson of making backroom deals involving a former judge and at least one former police officer, allowing them to avoid prosecution.

“The union’s support of Ms. Anderson, launching an ad 13 days before the election is a desperate act by this incumbent,” Ogg told reporters. She denied any wrongdoing and said the ad was not true.

At the union news conference, Anderson touted her record and thanked area law enforcement agencies for their endorsements.

“Since I’ve been in office, we’ve tried almost 700 jury trials,” Anderson said. “And of those, over 70 percent are violent criminals, the rest are property crimes and a very small percentage are drug cases.”

[…]

During the union’s news conference, Hunt said Ogg’s style was similar to former district attorney Pat Lykos, who was ousted in the 2012 GOP primary by Mike Anderson.

“It’s going to be very much like it was under Pat Lykos,” Hunt said of an Ogg administration. “It would make our job a lot more difficult.”

The union has long protested the so-called “trace case policy” instituted by Lykos, then repealed by Anderson. The police unions want crack cocaine users caught with powder-covered crack pipes to be arrested on felony charges. Citing clogged courts, overcrowded jails and the inability for the defense to re-test the scant amount of evidence, Lykos directed police to ticket those offenders for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The policy was applauded by criminal justice system reformers and derided by law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a direct correlation between the trace case people and the amount of burglaries we have,” Hunt said.

Ogg denied the claims made by Hunt and the HPOU and pressed her own charges against Anderson, but that last bit above is what all this really comes down to. Anderson, even with her willingness to make incremental changes in how pot prosecutions are handled, represents the way things have always been done in the Harris County DA’s office. Ogg, like Lykos, represents change. As is always the case with change, not everyone likes the idea. As you know, I agreed with Lykos’ trace case policy, and I do think the DA’s office could stand to do things a little differently. I look forward to seeing what Kim Ogg can do in that position. Ray Hunt would disagree, and that’s fine. That’s why we have elections. Hair Balls has more.